Richard Brody over at the The New Yorker has a problem with Damien Chazelle. He’s disconcerted at how tightly Chazelle frames and edits the spontaneity of jazz in Whiplash (2014), and continuing with the spontaneous-jazz theme, he is especially nauseated by the scene where Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) bloviatingly mansplains jazz to Mia (Emma Stone) by talking over the live jazz. (The “very, very exciting” ending of that “speech” just adds insult to injury.) Brody also has complaints about the dance numbers, which, being tightly choreographed and rehearsed, for him belie the spontaneous joy that supposedly ignites dancing in the streets.
Aside from the mansplaining, I think it’s fine. After all, we’re here not to experience jazz but to enjoy a film. And Chazelle’s camera direction does an exhilarating job of guiding the audience’s gaze, transforming the spectacle before us from a stage performance to a cinematic one.
Besides, the opening dance number isn’t supposed to be realistic (whatever that means in a musical about dreams and aspirations). It sets the mood of the film, and it also sets the scene: tinseltown, where dreams and their spectacle are literally in the air. It’s an atmospheric framing device, which is why Sebastian and Mia aren’t a part of it. In fact, all the wondrous parts of the film take place within this atmospheric frame, and the screenwriter workshop-mandated “obstacle” must be imposed from outside, leading to two of three egregiously artificial plot points, which we’ll get to later. The overlap of the bounds of the atmospheric framing device and of the leading couple’s relationship can be observed when Sebastian, singing “City of Stars” on a pier, starts dancing with an old lady—her husband gets offended, because the device’s boundaries don’t extend to include the elderly couple. La La Land (2016) depends to a great extent on this framing device, which is probably the root of the inorganic quality of the musical numbers noted by Steve Vineberg.
Let’s look at how the film introduces us to the protagonists. It’s clear that the real protagonist is Mia, not Sebastian. Before the meet-cute at the daytime party, we get to see Emma Stone act the heck out of Mia’s day job, her audition (which I thought was great, but I’m no casting director), her roommate situation, and her inner imposter syndrome. As for Sebastian, all we really find out is that he’s a jazz aficionado who doesn’t like to unpack—and we learn this only with lots of help from his sister. There’s not really very much acting in this film, but of what there is, Stone does a lot more of it, whereas Gosling does what he’s excelled at since Drive (2011): use a handsome, smug face to hide a masculinely wounded soul.
The actual meet-cute happens at a daytime pool party, where Mia is trying to eke out some fun—any fun—while Sebastian tries his best not to bare his wounded ego, and fails. You can tell these two are a match made in heaven. After the party, he walks her to her car, and in a rather ingenious decision by the film, the two share a romantic song-and-dance number that, by virtue of ostensibly rejecting the meet-cute, keeps a lid on the possibility of a sticky sweet head-over-heels love-at-first-sight first “date.”
I’m going to skip the next 45 minutes or so of plot, which develops as one might expect of a film about a pair of lovestruck dreamers in la la land: Car horn too loud for the roommates? Who cares! Theater closed up? Another date venue is but a jump cut away! Waltzing among the stars at the planetarium? Why I would love to! etc. etc.
And then we come to the first flagrantly artificial scene: Mia’s conversation on the phone with her mother. It strikes you at that point that, yeah, how do these starving artists pay their bills? Their minimum wage jobs certainly don’t support their wardrobes and leisure habits. The financial realm is completely alien to the idealistic world of the film, so of course it has to penetrate the atmospheric framing device via a remote signal originating in someone who appears in at most two scenes of the film. It just wouldn’t’ve cropped up in their everyday conversation—and in fact it doesn’t. Sebastian overhears the conversation and decides accordingly to sell out, all without a proper discussion; the money aspect is still external to their relationship. It’s only brought into the fold in the second cringingly manufactured scene, the dinner scene at Sebastian’s place. He thinks she wanted him to sell out, and she thinks he wanted to sell out, until finally the subject of money is broached, which, as conversations about money tend to do, dissipates the dream, and dissolves with it the possibility of their continuing relationship. It’s artificial because, again, this is a subject that they’ve had world enough and time to discuss. I mean, when Mia goes to Sebastian’s concert and is horrified at what she sees/hears, his motivations for joining the band should have been the first thing they talked about afterward. Yet here they are having a “crisis moment.” My disbelief beggars suspension.
(Side note: Is Mia horrified at what she sees or what she hears? Obviously what Sebastian plays on stage is not the jazz of his dreams, but since he talked all over the jazz performance to explain jazz to Mia, can she tell the difference? On the other hand, his supporting role in the band should also have been a dead giveaway—after all, he’s no John Legend.)
The only way to make sense of this is to see the film as an allegory, and if we take into account the atmospheric framing device, we see that it’s not an allegory about dreams and their pursuers, but an allegory about the musical film genre itself, about its possibilities and limitations.
This point is made clear in Mia’s final audition and the ending fantasy sequence, taken together. Of this spectacle-filled film, Mia’s final audition is the only scene inside the atmospheric framing device (which was restored when Sebastian honks his car horn in front of the library—just look at the tinseltown-y angle of the street and buildings in that scene!) to be completely devoid of anything but song and story. And this is where the third artificial moment breaks in: the camera revolves around her. If the focus is completely on Mia as storyteller (which, remember, is what the casting director is looking for) emphasized by song, an interpretation strengthened by the blacked-out background, then there’s really no need for any camera movement at all. But the film, beholden to the spectacle of dreams, gets antsy—it needs something to catch the eye, goddammit! So it makes a non-movement, a revolution that does nothing but draw attention to itself as spectacle-maker. This is the limitation of the musical film.
The musical film’s possibilities are demonstrated brilliantly in the ending montage sequence. By this point we’re clearly outside the atmospheric framing device; when did we leave it behind? When the film cuts to “Five Years Later”—although, we didn’t, really, as you’ll see below. At this point our main protagonist Mia is a star. She and her reality-summoned husband stumble across a jazz bar that (surprise!) is owned and operated by Sebastian, to do which of course was his dream all along. When he starts playing that piano, initiating the montage sequence, what is so tearjerking about it all is not that the montage represents what could have been, but precisely the opposite: The idea of achieving their dreams together was always unattainable, but the very same dream sustained them until they finally found success. As Zizek points out in his Lacanian mode, a dream literally realized is a nightmare. A true dream is a guiding star, never to be reached, just as people don’t break out spontaneously into unchoreographed dancing in the streets. The possibilities of the musical film genre are in how it keeps the fire alive. The end of the montage sequence is also the outer boundary of the atmospheric framing device, and as it ends, so, too, in every meaningful way, does the film—a film not for the ones who dream, but for the dream itself.
Editor’s note: This piece has been published in revised form at Critics at Large.